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Dr. Colwell's Remarks


"Changing Science Teaching in the 21st Century"

Dr. Rita R. Colwell
National Science Foundation
Panel on Making Science Relevant to Undergraduates
Annual Meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science
Denver, Colorado

February 14, 2003

See also slide presentation.

If you're interested in reproducing any of the slides, please contact
The Office of Legislative and Public Affairs: (703) 292-8070.

Thank you, Virginia.

I am delighted to participate in today's symposium with this distinguished panel to speak to the issue of "Making Science Relevant to Undergraduates."

[title slide]
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I feel a special responsibility to build a frame of reference for the ideas we will hear today. I have titled my remarks, "Changing Science Teaching in the 21st Century."

In recent decades we have seen report after report warning of problems in our educational system. Their titles usually linked such words as "crisis" or "failing" or "report card" to an inevitable countdown to "The 21st century."

Those reports had an ominous ring to them. But they always seemed to leave us plenty of time to find solutions; after all, the 21st century was a distant future.

But now that it has arrived, we understand this new century for what it is: It is the time and place for us to finally make effective science education a fact of life for all students in our country.

[Image of US TeraGrid computing network]
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Innovative science and engineering have created a sea change in many sectors of our society. The Internet, infotech, and telecommunications have transformed the social and business infrastructure of the nation. They have also changed the process of doing scientific research.

[Micromachined needles]
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The changes that are coming - including the development of nanotechnology and the unprecedented explorations of genomics - will further transform society.

To sustain the remarkable pace of science and innovation, we must create a corresponding sea change in the teaching of science in the 21st century.

Contemporary society is thoroughly rooted in, and dependent on, science and technology.

[The Economist quote]
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New enabling technologies can quickly influence our methods of commerce and manufacturing, and stimulate economic growth.

Nanotechnology, for example, is poised to open new frontiers in materials and manufacturing, the environment and energy, medicine, and national security. Our best and brightest have started the nanotech revolution. We need to educate the next generation of scientists to continue this work. We must also prepare a science-literate workforce to deliver the benefits of nanotechnology and other emerging fields.

In an increasingly competitive global marketplace, today's position is not guaranteed for tomorrow. Prosperity in a knowledge-based economy requires constant innovation and learning.

All citizens need a basic understanding of science, whether they become scientists or not.

[Galbraith quote]
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John Kenneth Galbraith put it succinctly when he wrote: "People are the common denominator of progress. No improvement is possible with unimproved people, and advance is certain when people are liberated and educated."

We need teaching strategies that fulfill the optimism of those words. One change we can make would have an immediate impact on undergraduates:

All incoming freshmen should be required to take a science survey course, regardless of their expected major course of study.

[college students in a lab]
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The course should have a contemporary focus: It should explore some of the new ideas in science, as science is done today. It should also introduce students of all backgrounds to the impacts - on society and on career choices - of such fields as biotechnology, nanotechnology, and information technology.

To make the course mandatory would show that science is important in our society. We already deliver a similar message with respect to technology by emphasizing computer use in the schools. It is time to promote science with equal vigor.

This survey course would mix science and non-science majors together, to the benefit of both groups of students.

Students who are majoring in science could be enormously helpful to their classmates who are not. Some of them would mentor their non-science peers - transmitting their passion and enthusiasm as well as their knowledge.

Non-science majors would bring to the course a different set of analytical and problem-solving skills. Their perspective could influence a generation of future scientists that will soon be working and communicating with nonscientists.

We need more scientists who can speak and write about their work, sharing their knowledge and excitement about discoveries in nanotechnology, genomics, terascale computing, and more -- not just with colleagues, but with the larger citizenry.

Ideally, the course would help to bridge the chasm between science majors and their peers in other disciplines. This is the same divide about which C.P. Snow spoke many years ago under the rubric of "The Two Cultures."

[Chesapeake Bay watershed]
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This science survey course could be taught by rotating faculty who offer a range of perspectives from their various disciplines. Some classes might feature two professors articulating different approaches to a single issue: for example, a chemist and an oceanographer could discuss ecosystem changes in the Chesapeake Bay resulting from a severe hurricane, agricultural pollution, or an oil spill.

These presentations would give all students a glimpse of how the connections (and divergences) of interdisciplinary dialogues inform scientific thinking. They would demonstrate how the power of collaboration - through the Internet and other technology - has been transforming the research process.

New course materials would have to be developed for this class. They should provide a fundamental understanding about the nature of science, as well as a survey of the emerging fields and the confluences among disciplines.

[K-12 students]
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You might ask how science-sophisticated high school graduates would tolerate such a course. Their education would do more than acquaint them with the evolving fields of science. It would also create a new view of the scientist's role. Ideally, they would leave the course with a greater sense of responsibility to the rest of society.

In a moment you will hear the other panelists discuss strategies to broaden the perspectives of undergraduate science students, and to expand their problem-solving abilities.

I want to shift my focus for a moment to the early grades, when our youngest students first encounter science. This early education time is critical. It determines the attitudes, interests, weaknesses, and strengths these young people will have as undergraduates.

Early, positive learning experiences are extraordinarily important. We know that immersing children in language starts them on a course for literacy and ideas. The same can be true for science literacy: engaging classroom experiments and science materials that reveal the world can lay the groundwork for high-level science proficiency in the future.

Science literacy begins in the early grades. We need to leverage the native curiosity of children with science activities that are engaging and applicable to their lives. We know that "hands on" science classes work. K-12 educators have begun to reorganize around successful models for science teaching.

[Program Highlights: NSF education]
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The National Science Foundation has always played an important role in science and math education - from K-graduate level. That was a critical part of the President's rationale to designate the Foundation as lead agency in the "No Child Left Behind" initiative.

We are now in the third year of this five-year, $1.0 billion investment in building complex math and science skills. Proficiency in these skills is essential for success in the 21st Century workplace and for advancement to the highest levels of science.

Two components of NSF's science and math thrust are the Noyce Scholarships and the Science of Learning Centers.

The scholarships directly address the shortage of highly trained K-12 teachers. They support talented mathematics, science, and engineering students who wish to pursue teaching careers at the elementary and secondary levels. Inspiring teachers who can transmit their knowledge and enthusiasm for science and math play a vital role in building science literacy.

[Science of Learning]
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The Science of Learning Centers are new multidisciplinary, multi-institutional collaborations to advance research in how we learn. Their work will cross many disciplines including cognition and behavioral science, neuroscience, computer science, linguistics, psychology, and mathematics. Our goal is breakthrough knowledge -- about how people learn, how the brain stores information, and how to best use new information technology to promote learning.

This work will help us better educate the majority of our citizens. These are the students who will not become scientists on the frontiers of research and knowledge creation, but whose technical expertise is essential to the nation's current and future direction.

[countries' degree output]
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Finally, I want to emphasize workforce preparation. Nothing is more vital to our future, and we are not currently developing the science-literate workforce we will need.

Today, only about 6 percent of U.S. 24-year-olds have earned degrees in the natural sciences or engineering, trailing students in other industrial nations. Some of these nations have doubled or tripled their science and engineering degree output over the past decade.

[projected workforce needs data]
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And we know, from Science and Engineering Indicators 2002, that new jobs requiring science, engineering, and technical training are projected to increase by nearly 32 percent by 2010.

In addition, demographic realities dictate that we must move quickly. The source of U.S. innovative capacity and technological ability is thinning. A quarter of today's S&T workforce is more than 50 years old.

We are not currently replacing our high-level scientific and technical workforce in sufficient numbers. Instead, we depend on foreign talent and continue to neglect the development of home-grown talent.

Many U.S. businesses have stepped up their recruitment of foreign engineers, scientists, and technology workers. This is not a new dynamic: As you may recall, Congress raised the ceiling on H1B visas from 65,000 to 115,000 for 1999.

While America wisely opens its arms to immigrants, the science community must recognize that an over-dependence on imported brainpower is risky. Heavy reliance on foreign talent just doesn't make sense as more and more nations go global and tap into the same labor pool to grow their economies.

[Land of Plenty report]
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The Congressional report, "Land of Plenty," issued in 2000, documented a significant domestic population of women and minorities that can join the science and technology workforce of the future. The participation of all of our citizens is not only important, but long overdue.

We know scientists and engineers cannot be educated quickly. It takes roughly a decade to move through undergraduate and graduate training in science and technical fields. Those potential candidates are now in our K-12 education system. We need to act now to ensure that they become part of the well-prepared workforce that can keep us competitive in the global marketplace of the future.

In this new age of scientific exploration, powered by information technologies and cross-disciplinary collaborations, the pace of change has been breathtaking. It is fundamentally altering society in many ways and creating new challenges for our citizens. As members of the science community, it has increased our responsibilities and our opportunities.

We need to take a leap forward that will realize the full potential of our citizens' resources and bring their contributions to bear on our nation's future. As scientists and educators, we have the responsibility to be the leading accelerators of this change.

Our first task is to begin with the assumption that every youngster can and will learn science. Our second task is to design new methods and new resources to make that happen.

Thank you.



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